Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Returning to Siberia, part 3; Travelling with reindeer

“Why do you have your little backpack on?” Misja, one of the two brothers who we traveled with through the taiga, ask me and I answered: “I am a little bit cold. It warms my back.”

Misja smiled and said:

“Siberia is very cold, ey?”

I nodded. It is very cold. I was jumping up and down, trying to feel my feet, which were frozen up and I didn´t feel them. Misja and his brother Kesja were getting all of the 25 reindeer’s ready, a job they did amazingly well, Bolot and my were kind of standing around waiting to leave, but we two hadn´t really assimilated into the taiga life of the coldest inhabited place on earth – Oymyakon.  We wanted to get going, but for the two Even brothers, it wasn´t any rush. One has to do one thing at a time in the taiga, when temperatures are below -50, do it slowly and than have a break in some kind of warmer environment. It was just that Bolot and me where plagued by the modern stresses of life. It takes time to wire down. Timmon helped out, Juri continuously filmed and helped out and Jegor killed every sign of that we had put up camp at this extremely beautiful place the passed night. He took away the branches which had been our floor, threw every little possible piece of rubbish in the fire, stapled the firewood that had been chopped up the night before, but we didn´t use, prepared starting wood for the next visitors, who probably would be the two brothers. I was really impressed by Jegor and the two Even brothers.

Jegor Makarov had traveled extensively through the most inaccessible parts of Yakutia, mainly in winter and almost always together with the native local people, and his knowledge and experience, well, few can match that in the world today. He has learned a lot from his own culture, as a Yakut, how to behave in nature and added on the knowledge and behavior of the local people, like the Even, Yugagihr and Evenk for example. He had that, in today’s modern world, natural peace with himself and the surrounding. That even if he was coughing his lungs out. But some Swedish aquavit, local vodka, enormous amounts of garlic and Dijon mustard, kept the illness at bay. There was no doubt that he felt at home out here.

Misja and Kejsa had spent all their lives out here, in what for most people on earth, is the most extreme and hard environment a human can imagine. For most people, Yakutia is synonymous with cold, deportation, prison camps and limitless expanses. The average winter temperature is minus 35 degrees Celsius, but it often dips to minus 60 degrees. At such times like these we were experiencing right now, mercury freezes solid and brandy becomes the consistency of syrup. It is so cold that trees explode, blue sparks fly from falling timber and when somebody exhales, their breath is transformed into a shower of ice crystals, followed by a tinkling sound referred to as “the whispers of the stars”. This icy whisper was experienced by almost three million prisoners deported to the most feared of Stalin’s work camps: the Kolyma Gulag, the Auschwitz of the Soviet Union.

“Da! Da!” Misja shouted happily, when I took off my rucksack, a sign for him that I was relaxing, when entering the tent for what I felt was another session of over eating on great local food and Yuri brought out the camera and I sat down and said:

“It is amazing that in the coldest inhabited place on earth, the people are the warmest.”

I felt really happy to be back in this part of the world. My year along the Kolyma was one of the happiest in my life and the first years after returning was very difficult for me. I continuously longed to go back. Eventually it subsided, but I felt that I somehow had to deal with this time and part of the world, so that I could continue with my life, not wanting to go back all the time. This was the perfect time! I had brought with me my face mask which I used during the Kolyma Expedition and I felt like it was representing my Kolyma time which still lingered in my life, so when Misja as a joke asked if he could have it, I gave it to him, he got overwhelmed by feeling and was happy as a child. For me, it felt like I finally put an end to the Kolyma years.

What did I than miss from the Kolyma time? Well, first of all, I love being outdoors and the taiga is really my home, but circumstances has forced me to live in cities. I love making fires, sitting in tents in minus 50, as long as you have a wood stove like we had now, than there´s no problems enjoying every second. But, I think what I miss most of all, it is the people.  Especially like Misja and Kesja. They´re so easy to be together with, always relaxed and content and have great humor and a great interest of life. Laughter comes often and very easy.  And when you are kind of free from the bonds of settled life, you generate a strong sense of strength, freedom and a deep connection with the environment you are in. All your senses are well used. One feels more…I guess human. I kind of felt complete back there in the Kolyma, and at times, I wish I could have stayed there for the rest of my life. Now, having a growing family, of course, the perspective is different. Now, today, back there in Malmö, Sweden,  it is all about setting my family up in the most comfortable environment which can create the best possibilities to survive and thrive for them in the future. But, sitting there, looking and listening to Misja and Kesja laughing and telling stories, sure, I did feel a strong urge to stay! Until I thought about my daughter again….

Now, neither Kesja or Misja, both over 30 years of age, had a family. Finding a spouse out here or somebody who would be willing to live out here during these extreme circumstances is extremely difficult, maybe not even possible. Well, personally I don´t think it is too bad, on the contrary, it is really a very comfortable life, but sure you are far off any schools or no TV and such, if that is needed for survival and comfort. I could easily and happily do it with my family. And, of course, having a family was a wish they had, but being a reindeer herder, means hard work and living in far away places. they wer quite different, even looked different.

Misja was tall, with more of a Thai look than Mongolian, didn´t drink any vodka, but smoked incessantly and I met him first time at the seminar in Yakutsk, were he together with his mother who was the boss of the reindeer herders in this specific area, wanted to learn how they could set up some sort of tourism activity. I can say it is the most unique, most gratifying place on earth, but takes a special kind of tourists. The one´s who want to take a step further. who think they have seen all. They haven´t. Misja was also very interested in the outside world, had heard about Yemen, which few have and was well aware of the existence of the beduins in the great Arab deserts. He admired them for their resilience and pride. he wanted to come with me, when I was set to return. And he meant it. He was also a great walker. Before leaving his small settlement, we had to find the reindeer, grazing somewhere in the surrounding taiga and he set off like a rocket, so hard that Bolot pulled out and returned, and we sweated profusely. His forced march was against all my knowledge how not to freeze to death, so I asked him why such a hard walk. Well, he explained, he thought it was better to sweat a bit initially, have the same clothes on 24 hours a day, in his case all reindeer skins and he just liked to walk hard.

Kejsa was short, very stocky, a few years younger and laughed and joked continuously. He didn´t say no to a shot of vodka, cleaned every single piece of eatable food of the bones placed on his plate and was a master with the lasso, he was the one who picked out the right 25 reindeer’s we needed, he knew them by facial patterns, not names and he was strong, very strong. He had visited Yakutsk once, I hated it, due to the bad smells. He didn´t want to go there again. he was probably the best choice for my dream documentary, the Last Free Man on Earth.

Together they assembled the best reindeer, 25 of them and took us on one of the most spectacular trips I have ever done!

Post-Trip Update from Outwild TV on Vimeo.

See the photo portfolio from this visit at http://mikaelstrandberg.500px.com/

Discovery Channel interview here!


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